The following is one of four stories by Peter Orner featured in Conjunctions:76, Fortieth Anniversary Issue.
He’d have to be long dead now. He drove a small brown car, an upright two-door Dodge. Like a little hat with wheels. Mr. Sandy. Lessons were at six thirty on Wednesday nights. This went on for a couple of years. I had no competence or interest. The piano sat facing the front lawn and Mr. Sandy and I spent a lot of time looking out the window. It was either dark or getting dark, depending on the season. We came to unspoken agreement. He’d mostly doze in a dining-room chair while I’d sit at the piano and every once in a while doodle a few notes, here and there. “Twinkle, Twinkle,” or the slightly more advanced “My First Waltz.” A kind, unassuming man; I can still see his heavy, ruddy face. Mr. Sandy would sit next to me on that dining-room chair dragged, by me, into the living room every Wednesday night. Big glasses that hid his eyes. He’d prop his hat on his knee. I think of his knee, how his knee wore his hat. My mother, tired from substitute teaching, would be making dinner in the kitchen. Occasionally she’d bang a pot and then be very quiet, as if not to disturb my piano lesson. I’m sure she wondered why there wasn’t much piano playing. But I don’t think the silences bothered her very much. Maybe she thought Mr. Sandy and I were discussing music theory. When Mr. Sandy closed his eyes behind his glasses, I looked out the window at the lawn, at the graying light, at one squirrel chasing another squirrel. I was in fifth grade and pretty much friendless. Like my mother, Mr. Sandy also came in the door exhausted. Afternoons and into the evenings, the man drove all over the North Shore giving lessons. I knew I was doing him a favor by not demanding anything of him. Long dead—
I can still play “My First Waltz” in my sleep, the opening notes anyway. You start with the middle C and radiate up and down the scale, hitting each subsequent note once, landing back at C.
I’m hoarding scraps. Sometimes, when I’m on the highway and about to run out of gas, I turn off the radio and the air conditioner thinking this will buy me a few more miles.
As a substitute teacher my mother told funny stories all day. She was very popular. She’d walk in the door and the kids would cheer. She’d tell them stories about me and my brother. But all work, any work, is tiring. I think of my mother, in the kitchen, heartened by a few notes out of the piano in the living room. It didn’t matter to her that it was only the beginning of the same song.
Bard Fiction Prize winner Peter Orner is the author of two novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love (both Little, Brown); and three story collections, Esther Stories (Back Bay Books), Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, and Maggie Brown & Others (both Little, Brown). His memoir, Am I Alone Here? (Catapult), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A new collection of essays, Notes in the Margin, will be out next year. Orner’s stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and twice received a Pushcart Prize. He has been awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a two-year Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, as well as a Fulbright to Namibia. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and lives with his family in Norwich, Vermont.